It is difficult to fathom that there could be a plot of ground in California that hasn’t been extensively tramped across, camped on, photographed or blogged about.
If anything comes close, it’s the proposed Berryessa Snow Mountain National Conservation Area, a half-million-acre section of the inner coast range that is home to some of the most biologically diverse landscape in the state, ranging from unspoiled rivers and rolling oak woodlands that begin near the town of Winters to the craggy 7,000-foot peak of Snow Mountain in the Mendocino National Forest, 100 miles to the north.
Wedged between the Bay Area and Sacramento and spanning six counties, this 100-mile swath has not been completely overlooked. State and local groups have pressed hard to unify a patchwork of land managed by more than a dozen federal, state and local agencies into a national conservation area.
That low-key but steady campaign was brought into wider focus when the corridor was included on a list of prospective national monuments in an Interior Department draft document leaked to the media in February.
Four of the 14 sites identified as candidates either to become monuments or gain acreage via presidential declaration are in California: the Berryessa site, the Bodie Hills, the Modoc Plateau and an expansion into California of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument from Oregon.
The list came as a surprise to the Wilderness Society and the environmental group Tuleyome, based in Winters, which has been working since 2002 to gain federal recognition for the area under the National Landscape Conservation System. Monument status can confer greater protections than those afforded to a conservation area, but the latter is often managed to allow a broader range of recreation.
That would be the preference of Bob Schneider, who works with Tuleyome and guided a recent hike of the area, beginning at the trail head for Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve.
The trail snaked up to a rocky outcrop that afforded a view of the skyline of downtown Sacramento glittering between clefts in the distant ranges. Below, boaters carved a frothy wake on Lake Berryessa. Their heavy-metal music provided an incongruous soundtrack to a stunning view of the northern inner coast range.
It is an abrupt landscape, at rest now and furred with green. But the steeply uptilted rock faces testify to a violent past of tectonic head-butting. Here, the North American plate rears up against the Pacific plate in a battle that over hundreds of million of years has created striking escarpments and deposited the contents of ancient sea beds into a region that avid geology buffs keep as their secret.
The place is a riot of rocks and rock types: sedimentary, volcanic and the delicate green- and black-flecked serpentine, the California state rock. It also supports a luxurious plant world. The flanks of the region’s high country are swathed in classic plein-air scenes: chaparral communities with bristling shrubs giving way to a smoky blue oak woodland, blue-tinged trees clinging to slopes shot through with silvery ghost pines.
Schneider led the way along Putah Creek, through avenues of oak, their limbs dripping with Spanish moss, arching across the road. One benefit of a higher level of federal protection, he said, would be to eradicate non-native species that compete with natives such as the oaks. “We talk about keeping the common species common,” he said.
John and Judy Ahmann run Romagnola and Black Angus cattle on several thousand acres of ranchland that sweeps up from the shores of Lake Berryessa. The couple love the area so much that they have been exploring ways to preserve it.
“This is one of the best places that California has to offer that is close to an urban area,” said Judy, sweeping an arm to take in the sparkling lake and the knobby hills that march into the distance. “It is untouched. We are concerned with keeping it that way.”
The couple have decided to place more than 3,000 acres of the ranch into a conservation easement that they hope will be folded into the prospective national conservation area.
“If you have an interest in keeping a place in its natural state, you don’t develop it,” John said, pushing his cowboy hat farther back on his head. “There are not many places that you can come to where there is still wildlife, there is still nature and woods to be looked upon, without a house on every ridge and crevice. We want to keep it intact. We don’t want to see it developed.”
That sentiment seems to be echoed through the region, where there has been some wariness about “locking up” public lands. In Winters, a gateway for recreationists, cycle shop owner Myke Berna said he would like to see the conservation area designation to save the area for his children.
As for those who may oppose it, “There are just some people who, when you say ‘conservation,’ they aren’t going to support it, they are not going to see anything past that,” he said. “But most people here love this area. That’s why they live here.”